For ceramics to be relevant in the Southern African Iron Age, archaeologists must broaden their theoretical base to include social and other contexts when interpreting material culture items such as pottery. Pottery remains critical in understanding cultural dynamics in the region for the past two millennia, but current usage is narrow in scope. Using ethnohistorical data and archaeological examples from South Africa and Zimbabwe, we argue that pottery provides valuable information on the region's Iron Age, if archaeologists address the social meaning of ceramic assemblages. Ceramic production among rural communities provides the basis on which a wide range of social issues are discussed and used to critique pottery recovered from archaeology. Ethnography suggests that ceramic assemblages are context specific, and archaeologists are cautioned against making generic statements on the basis of similarities of vessel shape and decoration motif.